Sectarian twists and turns

The SWP has lost its second 'sister' group in the US in two years. Meanwhile, the ISG's Alan Thornett has published an article which claims to go "beyond the ya-boo approach of the Weekly Worker". Rob Coban discusses the phenomenon of the non-sectarian sects

In 2001 the SWP procured the expulsion of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) from their International Socialist Tendency (IST). Pro-IST militants expelled from the ISO set up a new organisation, Left Turn, which characterised itself as a network of activists in the anti-globalisation movement. Now Left Turn has expelled a small pro-IST tendency and asked to be removed from the IST’s lists of sympathising groups, forcing Alex Callinicos to write a letter to IST organisations to explain the split.

Comrade Callinicos’s letter is available at several sites on the web, most readably at http://www.marxsite.com/SWPsplitswith.htm. It is an illuminating self-exposé of the dishonest and manipulative approach of the SWP leadership to its co-workers in its tactical ‘turns’.

The SWP-IST and its US co-thinkers

The SWP broke with the American ISO after a factional battle which was short in real-world terms but long in terms of SWP and IST faction-fights, since the ISO was too large and too longstanding an IST affiliate to be simply dumped. The formal charges were pure hypocrisy: the ISO had expelled a small pro-SWP tendency for continuing to factionalise after the ISO convention (congress/conference), and had collaborated with a grouping which had split the IST’s Greek section, arguing that vote-rigging and other anti-democratic practices in the organisation of Greek section’s conference made it impossible to continue the debate internally. Expelling ‘permanent factionalists’ is normal SWP practice; collaboration with dissident oppositions is the same as the prior approach of the SWP to the ISO’s minority. The underlying political issue is explained by Callinicos in his letter about Left Turn as follows:

“At the heart of this debate was the ISO leadership’s rejection of two propositions accepted by the rest of the tendency: (i) the Seattle protests marked the emergence of a movement against global capitalism and, more generally, the beginning of a new phase of radicalisation; (ii) revolutionaries should accordingly make themselves part of the movement, starting not from their disagreements with other activists, but from the much larger area of agreement that united the entire movement” (my emphasis - RC).

The ISO’s responses, available in pdf format at www.internationalsocialist.org/publications.html, indicate that they participated in the concrete mobilisations of the anti-globalisation movement, but considered it to be not yet anti-capitalist as such and insisted on defending their own strategic line and, as necessary, criticising the politics of anarchist, libertarian, etc leaders of the movement. It was this failure to present themselves as “the best anti-globalisation activists” which, for the SWP leadership, constituted the ISO’s “sectarianism”.

The SWP leadership thus “encouraged [the ex-ISO minority] not simply to form a new revolutionary socialist organisation (a new-model ISO) but rather to create a looser anti-capitalist network. Our thinking was that through an organic involvement in the new movements the comrades (who were already active in different networks) could begin to crystallise around them a cadre of revolutionary activists unscarred by the sectarianism of the ISO (US). We took it for granted that building such a network was a means to developing a much more healthy revolutionary Marxist organisation in the United States” (Callinicos letter).

It is unsurprising that, with this starting point, Left Turn reached the conclusion that what is needed - in the present period at least - is not a party, but a “network” of anti-globalisation activists. And as a result (surprise, surprise!) “there were concerns about the internal democracy of Left Turn. The main complaint was that control of the magazine and over broader decisions (or non-decisions) about the development of the group seemed to be in the hands of a few founding members based mainly in New York and Washington DC with no way for the other members to hold them accountable” (Callinicos letter); and the Left Turn leadership in due course summarily excluded the dissentients from the “network”.

The SWP leaders’ original recommendation to the ex-ISO comrades was that for a period of time they should pretend to be something they were not: ie, spontaneist anti-globalisation activists. The SWP’s objection to the ISO was, after all, that it had refused to follow this course. But let us be frank: this approach is simply dishonest and manipulative. The Left Turn comrades should be criticised for succumbing to the ‘Tyranny of structurelessness’ diagnosed by Jo Freeman in 1970 (http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/hist_texts/structurelessness.html) - and, indeed, diagnosed by Marx and Engels in their criticisms of Bakunin in the 1870s. But they should also be congratulated on escaping from the morass of dishonesty proposed by the SWP leadership and becoming the anti-Leninists they perhaps started out pretending to be. Honesty is the precondition for learning.

Thornett on the SA

Alan Thornett’s article on the crisis in the Socialist Alliance is characterised by self-deception. We start with the proposition that “opportunities are opening up” for the alliance as a result of the anti-war movement. This takes us to the May AGM resolution comrade Thornett himself proposed, which, in his words, called for “a realignment of the left, which could reach out to the radicalised sections of the anti-war movement and create a broader, more effective left alternative to Blairism”. Here Thornett reads his own resolution within the terms of the perspective of the SWP - or more exactly of the John Rees-Lindsey German trend within the SWP - that the task facing the alliance was to convert the anti-war movement into political representation.

Both as written and as moved, comrade Thornett’s resolution was much more ambiguous, and was consistent both with the Rees-German perspective and with the competing perspective of beginning a broader struggle for a new workers’ party. He also tones down the content of the Rees-German perspective, by making it one of “turning the alliance outwards towards sections of the anti-war movement that can be won to a left political alternative” (my emphasis) - not, as Rees-German put it, towards the anti-war movement as a whole as representing a left alternative.

This is critical to Thornett’s (immediately following) diagnosis of the SWP’s bureaucratic manipulation of Birmingham SA. At the time of the October 12 2002 Socialist Alliance conference on the euro, it was already the case that Stuart Richardson of the ISG in Birmingham was circulating material about the SWP’s decision - in alliance with supporters of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, Socialist Action and an element of the mosque - to reorganise Birmingham Stop the War Coalition to suppress discussion. The packing of the Birmingham SA AGM flowed naturally from this prior alliance formed in the STWC. It was not simply a response to the events of the SA AGM.

Thornett now proceeds - via a legitimate criticism of Workers Power’s antics at the July SA national council meeting - to accuse the Weekly Worker of having “spun to a ridiculous degree” the SWP’s ‘peace and justice’ proposal. It was not a decision of the Socialist Alliance, he says. We never claimed it was: on the contrary, we said the SWP was negotiating with potential partners behind the back of the Socialist Alliance. The charge was “based on verbal remarks John Rees was alleged to have made in private conversations and latterly in the CPB account of their discussions with the SWP” - well, yes, comrade, it is a little late to deny anything serious happened after the CPB let the cat out of the bag.

The Weekly Worker “gave the completely false impression that the alliance was dropping its stance on lesbian and gay and women’s issues”, says Thornett. No, comrade, we reported the public speech of Lindsey German at the SWP’s Marxism 2003, where she implied that socialists - ie, the SWP - should be willing to put on one side these “shibboleths” (her word) for the sake of a broader bloc, including a section of the mosque. We criticised it openly, mainly for the benefit of SWP members who might not be clear just what sort of game their leadership was playing.

Having more or less falsified what happened and the nature of the Weekly Worker’s interventions - which, incidentally, opposed both the semi-islamophobia of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and the childish irresponsibility of Workers Power - comrade Thornett goes on to comment that “This kind of dead-end sectarianism is as damaging to the alliance as the packing of a meeting by the SWP.” This poses the question: what is meant by “sectarianism”, both in the real world and in this criticism?


‘Sectarianism’ is all too frequently used as a mere term of abuse. Thus, for example, Eurocommunist Fernando Claudin’s The Communist movement from Comintern to Cominform (1975) treated the communists’ ‘sectarian’ decision to split the Second International as the fundamental error which poisoned their subsequent history. A common formulation on the far left, and one we have used in the past in the Weekly Worker, is ‘putting the interests of your organisation above those of the class as a whole’. This is a little too abstract to be helpful; it is, for example, as true of Kautsky in 1914 or of the Labour lefts, who in the end put party unity ahead of class interests, as it is of, for example, the SWP. To be more precise it is necessary to address both the social basis of sects and the concrete political content of sectarianism.

The social basis of sects is the existence of a ‘political marketplace’ in capitalism, within which the sect takes up or attempts to take up a competitive ‘niche’. The sect is characterised, on the one hand, by a small, permanent leading group - in effect, individual political entrepreneurs ‘trading as’ a party; on the other, by a ‘rotating door’ membership - ie, members who come in, stay a year or two and leave - drawn from newly radicalising youth rather than from the existing militants of the broad workers’ vanguard. These members provide an activist and financial base for the operations of the sect, but it is necessary to the sect leaders to keep them walled off from rivals. This is because their original decision to join the sect is often based on its immediate visibility to them at the time of their radicalisation, not on a political critique of the existing organisations of the workers’ vanguard.

This necessity to preserve the virginal quality of the young activists - and, indeed, the young activists’ own fear of compromising their commitment by thought - also dictates the existence of sharp limits on internal political discussion. Sects thus tend both to proliferate though splits, and to produce individual ex-member activists opposed to party organisation.

The political content of sectarianism is, then, produced both by the initial choice to ‘compete’ for the recruitment of newly radicalising youth by masquerading as ‘the alternative’, and by the need to preserve the political naivety of the young activist members. It consists in the refusal of common action where there is partial agreement, on the basis of the existence of continuing political differences.

This refusal is transparent in the case of organisations like the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the ‘council communists’, who reject both the idea of partial struggles and partial organisations like trade unions; so, too in the ‘third period’ of the Comintern, where the CPs attempted to set up ‘red trade unions’, and so on.

There are several lesser techniques, which have the same practical effect. One is refusal to delay decisions on action for negotiation with other groups or to conduct democratic processes leading to a vote, on the usually spurious ground of ‘urgency’, with the result that the sect launches its own front ‘initiative’ subject to its organisational control. Another is, where it controls broader organisations, the sect invariably attempts to reproduce its own internal bureaucratic manipulation and suppression of discussion - again reflecting the dynamics and needs of its recruitment regime, but also having the effect of driving out critics ... so that no unity can be maintained or competing ‘broad’ organisations emerge.


The common core ideology of sectarianism is that united action is only possible on the basis of general agreement and hence the suppression of dissent. It is for this reason that sectarianism can readily seem to be turned on its head, as the sect suppresses its own formal political ideas for the sake of ‘getting into the movement’. Thus in order to have united action with the Peronistas we have to pretend to be Peronistas (Nahuel Moreno in 1950s Argentina). In order to have united action with the Morning Star and Labour left we have to pretend to be Stalinists/reformists (umpteen Trot groups since 1945 - most recently the SWP in the Anti-Nazi League, the STWC and, in a diluted form, the Socialist Alliance). In order to have united action with the anarchists and spontaneists, etc of the anti-globalisation movement we have to pretend to be ... Globalise Resistance. When this practice is coupled with the anti-democratic instincts of the sect, the sect becomes a left policeman to suppress criticism by bureaucratic manipulation for the benefit of some section of the labour bureaucracy - the historic role of the Stalinised CP.

To call a person or organisation sectarian is an insult, for Trotskyists as well as for everyone else. As a result, ‘sectarianism’ acquires a new definition popular among Trot sects. Instead of consisting in refusal to unite in action, it becomes insisting on raising political differences - or refusing to pretend. Thus the SWP leadership called the ISO ‘sectarians’ for refusing to pretend to be simple anti-globalisation activists. Thus John Ross of Socialist Action and his lieutenants in 1984-85 called Phil Hearse and Dave Packer (of the opposition which became the ISG) and Alan Thornett, ‘sectarians’ for raising criticisms of Benn, Scargill and Livingstone: ie, refusing to pretend to be left social democrats. It is this - sectarianism equals raising criticisms - which is exactly the content of Thornett’s criticism of the ‘sectarianism’ of the Weekly Worker.


Many British Trotskyists and militants of Trotskyist origin have argued that the cause of sectarianism on the British left is failure to take seriously the ‘mass organisations of the working class’ and in particular the Labour Party. It seems to have escaped these comrades’ attention that there have been numerous organisations within the Labour Party which display the political dynamics of sectarianism - classically the Militant Tendency during its long sojourn in the party. Nor, as we have already seen, does a ‘united front policy towards the traditional left leaders’ avoid the problem.

Pat Jordan in the early 1970s, and more recently Jordan’s pupil, Phil Hearse, since his split with the Socialist Party/Militant, argued that sectarianism was a peculiar vice of the British and American left. The basis of this argument was the sectarian history of much of the UK and US left before the formation of the communist parties. The remedy proposed was therefore loyal attachment to the Fourth International (majority).

This argument has proved illusory. Sectarianism has turned out to be a global phenomenon. It is produced by a dynamic inherent in capitalism: the market form of politics. In this, as in much else, Britain and America before 1918 merely showed the rest of the world their future. Moreover, if anything, the British Trot groups of the post-1968 period proved less sectarian, more willing to unite in action and debate one another, than their counterparts in (for example) France. Today’s Fourth International is almost the epitome of non-sectarian sectarianism.

There is a very widespread belief, originating in the experience of 1905 in Russia, that a sufficient forward movement of the working class will create a powerful pressure for unity of the left and overcome sectarianism. There is an element of truth in this - but the experience of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the advanced capitalist countries, when sects grew and multiplied in the fertile ground of an offensive of the class and a broad radicalisation, should lead to caution.

The truth is that there is no short answer to the problem of sectarianism. What is needed, as Mark Fischer argued in response to the struggle between the SWP and the ISO, is a cultural revolution for the left (see Weekly Worker May 25 2000).

The only possible road forward is a struggle for a workers’ movement built on the twin and inseparable principles of unity in action and freedom of discussion. This struggle requires us in the present to fight for as much unity in action as is possible, while at the same time openly debating political differences. But fighting for as much unity in action as is possible has an inexorable logic: that is, the Marxists - who have far more objective common ground among themselves than they have with, for example, the social democrats, the anarchists or the greens - need to address their own disunity before they can expect to make an impact on broader forces.

Equally, the struggle for freedom of discussion cannot be conducted in the abstract. It can only be conducted by actually arguing out political differences in the open. This precludes pretending to be reformists or anti-globalisation activists or whatever for the sake of a spurious and eventually illusory unity.

It is also necessary to work at the level of theory to break down the secondary ideologies which serve to legitimise the primary sect ideology that unity in action requires the suppression of public expression of differences.

For example, the ‘non-sectarian’ sectarians are particularly fond of a phrase from Marx’s 1875 letter to Bracke: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.” SWP supporter Dave Williams quotes this in his letter in last week’s Weekly Worker (September 25). It should be restored to its context, as part of a covering note for Marx’s Critique of the Gotha programme (which hardly treats programmatic concessions as secondary):

“Apart from this, it is my duty not to give recognition, even by diplomatic silence, to what in my opinion is a thoroughly objectionable programme that demoralises the party.

Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes. If, therefore, it was not possible - and the conditions of the item did not permit it - to go beyond the Eisenach programme, one should simply have concluded an agreement for action against the common enemy. But by drawing up a programme of principles (instead of postponing this until it has been prepared for by a considerable period of common activity) one sets up before the whole world landmarks by which it measures the level of the party movement” (K Marx, F Engels Selected works Vol 3, pp11-12).

And here is Engels, writing to Kautsky in 1891, after the (16-years-belated) publication of the Critique of the Gotha programme had led to calls for controls on publication to avoid ‘aiding the enemy’:

“That voices should have been raised in the parliamentary group demanding that the Neue Zeit be subject to censorship is truly delectable ... After the liberation of German socialist science from Bismarck’s anti-socialist law, what more brilliant idea than to subject it to a new anti-socialist law to be thought up and implemented by the officials of the Social Democratic Party. However, we’ve taken care that they don’t get too big for their boots” (ibid Vol 49, p133).

Unsuccessfully, as things turned out. The full-time officials of even the smallest sects, as well as the large mass parties, continue to this day to “get too big for their boots” in attempting to carry on politics behind the backs of their members and to suppress critical discussion and the reporting of what they are up to - in the name of ‘non-sectarianism’. After so many years of failure it is time to get rid of this crap.